HUD Surprised Homeless Population Isn't Higher

The total number of people seeking shelter last year grew by more than 2 percent, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD assistant secretary Mercedes Marquez says it's surprising the numbers didn't go even higher. She credits a $1.5 billion program in the economic stimulus bill for helping hundreds of thousands of people avoid homelessness or quickly find new homes, with things such as rent subsidies.

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Here's one way to measure homelessness in the past year. The federal government tracks how many people spent at least one night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing. Last year, about 1.6 million Americans did. That is a slight increase in homelessness. And many of those seeking shelter are families. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Dozens of homeless men and women line up each day outside the Neil Good Day center in San Diego for drinks and snacks.

Unidentified Man: How many do we get?

FESSLER: The number of homeless people in this city, about 6,000, has been growing despite efforts to find them homes. And that appears to be the case in many areas of the country.

According to new figures from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the total number of people seeking shelter last year grew by more than 2 percent. And on a given night, almost 650,000 people were living on the streets or in shelters - a slight increase from the year before.

But HUD assistant secretary Mercedes Marquez says it's surprising the numbers didn't go even higher.

Mr. MERCEDES MARQUEZ (Assistant Secretary, Community Planning and Development, HUD): Well, given the challenges that we've had in the economy and unemployment and rates of foreclosure, it would seem fair to guess that you would see a significant increase in homelessness.

FESSLER: She credits a $1.5 billion program in the economic stimulus bill for helping hundreds of thousands of people avoid homelessness or quickly find new homes, with things such as rent subsidies.

Mr. MARQUEZ: It has had a significant impact on making sure that if folks, particularly families, did experience homelessness that it was a short experience.

FESSLER: And, indeed, more than a third of those who stayed in a shelter last year were there for a week or less.

Patrick Markee, who's with the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, agrees that the stimulus bill helped keep the numbers down. He too thought they'd be higher. But, he says, homeless counts aren't always reliable.

Mr. PATRICK MARKEE (Senior Policy Analyst, Coalition for the Homeless): That's particularly true when you look at the unsheltered homeless, folks who are sleeping out on the streets and other public spaces. It's notoriously difficult to count that population with any accuracy. In New York City, you know, we've long felt that the city's attempt to estimate the unsheltered homeless population has resulted in undercounts.

FESSLER: His big concern now is that the funding in the stimulus bill is running out, and all the talk in Washington is about cutting spending on things such as affordable housing.

Mr. MARKEE: Exactly the things that are going to result in solutions to the problems of homeless and that actually will save taxpayer money in the long run.

FESSLER: In fact, one of the things the administration credits for reducing the number of long-term homeless individuals last year is an increase in permanent supportive housing. But those programs, too, are being jeopardized by budget cuts.

And Nan Roman of the National Alliance to End Homelessness says she's worried that the increase in homelessness among families is only the beginning.

Ms. NAN ROMAN (President and CEO, National Alliance to End Homelessness): You know, homelessness is a lagging indicator, so we are concerned that people who've been doubled up and unemployed and so forth, that eventually we're going to start seeing them in the homelessness system, and then we're going to have really not enough resources to help them.

FESSLER: On just one night last year, almost 80,000 families were homeless. Many of them were in shelters, but HUD says 17,000 of them were living on the streets.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.�

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